We gave it an A-
If you’re quite sure of the lengths that can be achieved on Lincoln Center’s mammoth thrust stage at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, you’ll need to think again after witnessing Bartlett Sher’s breathtakingly appointed take on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. And I do mean length. In creating the Far Eastern nation of Siam circa 1862, yards seem to turn into acres before your very eyes as Sher’s unsurpassed scenic designer Michael creates an opulent vista that judiciously stops short of fetishizing Eastern culture, as in other productions of King. But thankfully, everything contained within this magical realm (including one jaw-dropping, built-to-scale mode of transport) is as impressive as the theatrical eye candy.
Director Sher—who also scored a bullseye with his expert handling of R&H’s South Pacific at this same venue in 2008—assumes a more cerebral take than we’re used to, in telling the tale of progressive schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (the radiant Kelli O’Hara), who arrives to the traditional nation with her young son Louis (Jake Lucas) in tow, and serves as tutor for many of the 70-plus children sired by the King of Siam (The Last Samurai’s Ken Watanabe). Their push-and-pull battle of the sexes is juxtaposed against that of the passionate affair between burgeoning lovers Lun Tha (How to Get Away With Murder’s Conrad Ricamora) and Tuptim (Ashley Park), the latter a gift to the King from the leader of Burma and the target of much side-eye from the King’s chief wife Lady Thiang (Ruthie Ann Miles).
If this production has put the romantic passion of the tale on a bit of a simmer, it has boosted the overall theme of intersocietal behavior and respect. “Getting to Know You”, for example, has never seemed more relevant to the score. In this production, it’s not a mere classroom charm-song one-off, but an outward reflection of the uneasy feelings the characters are struggling with in that moment (“day by day”, as the song informs us). The gender politics involving Anna, Lady Thiang and Tuptim also feel deeply resonant here. Without hammering away at the point too impulsively, Sher’s intents seem to sway the story back to a uniquely feminist state of mind–even the way the residents of Siam keep calling Anna “Sir” seems to take on a whole new meaning; she seems to be the leader they’d all truly want but cannot have. And for those wondering if numbers like “Western People Funny” still hold the sting of discomfort, rest assured that the creators have found a way to flip the implied intent; like the production as a whole, the question of race and tradition (not to mention science versus faith), is shrewdly integrated to include different points of view.
These objectives might explain why the central males do not loom as large as previous mountings have let them, or perhaps it’s the varied performances. Ricamora, a treat in Here Lies Love a few seasons ago, is surprisingly affectless (though in excellent voice) as the love-torn emissary Lun Tha, and Watanabe is a charismatic and relatively subdued King, but often very hard to decipher; his big number “A Puzzlement” ends up being just that. Strangely though, the latter’s surface debit sometimes works to some advantage—after all, the King is a man struggling with the ability to fully connect to others.
O’Hara could bring out the romantic swoon in just about any male costar, and Anna is another triumph in her winsome recent gallery of fine portrayals. (And hearing her luscious soprano on beauties like “Hello, Young Lovers” is like finding a precious gift inside a jewel box.) Park makes for a fiery Tuptim, and Miles is a revelation as Lady Thiang. After her impressive turn as Imelda Marcos in Here Lies Love, here is another smartly judged performance; the character’s quietly breaking heart while delivering “Something Wonderful” has never been so readily apparent.
And if that isn’t enough to entice those who feel they’ve already whistled a happy tune too many, consider the lush 29-piece orchestra, or the 51-member cast swathed in Catherine Zuber’s stunning, marvelously-tailored costumes (not to worry, though, Anna still has those infamous, small-city-block-sized hoop dresses). With all this to take you away, one only needs to ask (with an assist from one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best known King songs): on a bright cloud of music, shall we fly? You bet. A–